By Kristine Kilanski
In a recent article, New York Times correspondent Claire Cain Miller posed a puzzle of longstanding interest to sociologists of work: Today when women leave school and enter the workforce they earn roughly the same as their men counterparts. However, soon women’s and men’s wages begin to diverge.
What leads to the emergence of a gender pay gap? Miller’s answer largely mimics the lyrics to a well-known children’s riddle: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes [insert man’s name here] and [insert woman’s name here] with a baby carriage.”
Miller offers two main pieces of evidence to support the claim that marriage and babies are to blame for the gender pay gap. For one, the gender pay gap widens the most when workers are in their late twenties and early thirties—around the time women are likely to get married and to become mothers. Secondly, unmarried women without children tend to earn roughly the same as their men counterparts.
Miller argues that the “big reason” women who have children, and even women who are married without children, have lower wages relative to their men counterparts is the unequal gender division of labor at home, which takes place “even when both spouses work full time.” She notes that retaining primary caregiving responsibility for children is especially tough on the wages of college-educated women in high-paying occupations—whom she later explains face difficultly meshing caregiving with the 24/7 work culture associated with the jobs these women hold.
Miller attributes the marriage penalty faced by women to a combination of the tendency for married women to privilege their husband’s careers in decision-making, lowered career ambitions in anticipation of motherhood, and reduced opportunities at work as a result of employer suspicion regarding married women’s long-term commitment to their careers. She quotes an economist who suggests that the gendered division of labor is a rational, if unfortunate, response to present demands on families.
To be sure, the New York Times article offers important insights into the production of the gender pay gap. It is well-established, for example, that the energy of caring for children unequally falls on women’s shoulders (and, as part of the “sandwich generation”—also the care of elderly parents), and that this impacts women’s paid work in numerous ways.
However, Miller’s analysis of the gender pay gap fails to include other key insights from the sociology of work that offer not only a fuller picture of the state of women’s paid labor today but also a less rosy one.
Highly disappointing, for example, is Miller’s implicit assumption that the only context in which childrearing takes place is within heterosexual marriage. Implicitly attributing the gender pay gap to wives’ failed attempts to “make [their] partner a real partner” (one of Sheryl Sandberg’s admonishments to women who want to advance their careers) erases both the complexity of families (a minority of which are led by a two-parent heterosexual couple in their first marriage) but also those families most likely to suffer as a result of women’s lower earnings: the nearly quarter of all families led by single mothers.
Lowered career ambitions or sacrifices to support husbands’ breadwinning are not at the heart of the reason households led by single mothers are among the most at-risk of living in poverty. Rather, the devaluation of and lack of support more generally for the labor of motherhood and the concentration of poor and working class women in what sociologist Arne Kalleberg calls “bad jobs” are to blame.
Given that marriage is increasingly concentrated among those at the higher end of the income bracket, poor and working class women face a sort of double jeopardy: Their jobs are less likely to pay enough to support their families, but they are also less likely to have access to a partner with a good job—or a partner of any sort—to help them with either childcare or making ends meet.
Moreover, even in discussing the impact of marriage and motherhood on women in heterosexual relationships Miller misses a few beats.
Whether women downshift their career and educational plans in anticipation of motherhood or whether the family planning thesis is better thought of as a “myth” instead of “a mechanism” of gendered segregation into occupations remains highly contested within the sociology of work.
Regardless of whether or not women seek to enter occupations that enable them to balance caregiving and paid labor, sociologists have concluded women are not more likely than men to work in jobs that accommodate family responsibilities. Even part-time jobs are often better suited to meet employers’ needs for flexibility than mothers’ needs to balance work and family responsibilities. This is why sociologists of work have been quick to decry “common sense” arguments that mothers “opt out” of full time paid work or paid work altogether (the narrative implicitly advanced by Miller), but instead focus their energies on identifying the workplace practices and policies that operate to “push” mothers out of their paid jobs.
Further, research by sociologist Sarah Damaske challenges the idea that middle class women like the ones Miller centers in her analysis are choosing raising children over work; instead, Damaske reveals that these women are more likely than their working class counterparts to remain steadily employed. That’s because maintaining steady employment takes significant financial resources.
It should be clear by now that motherhood does not have a uniform impact on women’s relationship to their paid work. Moreover, despite the article’s framing—most explicit in the its title, “The Gender Pay Gap is Largely Because of Motherhood”—motherhood is not the only reason women’s pay suffers relative to men’s. In fact, Miller herself introduces evidence of this when she quotes a study that finds that a large portion of the pay gap results from women not getting raises and promotions at the same rate as men—though this finding quickly gets swallowed up in her commitment to her original point.
Good ol’ fashioned gender stereotypes of women continue to keep the “glass ceiling” and “concrete ceiling” in place, and to hinder white women and women of color from achieving positions of leadership. While we may like to believe “Mad Men” style workplace antics are a thing of the past, women continue to face gendered sexual harassment in the workplace, leading to short- and potential long-term impacts on their earnings.
Both experimental and organizational research consistently shows that, controlling for performance, women face numerous biases in bonus, promotion, and termination decisions. While it may provide some solace to think gender equality in paid labor is possible if only women forgo children and marriage (a pretty sad request in and of itself), the evidence doesn’t quite stack up that all women have to do is throw away their engagement rings and stock up on birth control to be treated equally in the workplace.
My final qualm with Miller’s article is more of a philosophical one. Despite a longstanding scholarly and personal commitment to promoting women’s equality, I often wonder what utility we derive by holding a narrow view focused on the gender pay gap between women and men alone. As sociologist Christine L. Williams argues, the focus on women’s disadvantages compared to men can miss the mark, especially when this perspective is applied to workers at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. She writes:
“Yes, women in these jobs earn less than men, and yes, feminists should support their efforts to use Title VII to redress these inequalities (as in the recent class action lawsuit brought against Wal-Mart). But what is the point of being “equal” to a man working at Wal-Mart? These are bad jobs, paying below living wages, with virtually no benefits or opportunities for advancement. By focusing on gender inequality, we sometimes ignore the big picture of economic inequality in society, which has only been exacerbated in the recent neoliberal free-for-all” (2006, 457).
By focusing mainly on the fact that women at the top earn less than their partners, Miller forgets her earlier research into the fact that one of the main ways economic inequality is maintained and sustained today is through the creation of “power couples.” In this way, the greater the gender equality at the top, the worse prospects for families at the bottom.
Overall, efforts to undergird gender equality in pay cannot be divorced from larger questions about greater equality and stability for all.
*Originally posted on Work in Progress: Sociology on the economy, work and inequality.
Kristine Kilanski is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.